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The staff of life

Cooking was taught in the obligatory Home Economics classes that were required in earlier high school years. One of the lessons frequently stated was “Bread is the staff of life.”

Certainly bread was on the table at every family meal. In the Deep South, bread usually meant corn bread, made of the water ground meal that was an important product of the yearly corn crop. Actually, until fairly recently, no farm was complete without its own stone for grinding.

In Dallas County, Kenan’s Mill was the location for corn grinding several times each summer. Since its recent restoration, the old mill stones, turned by the swift waters of Valley Creek, several times a season produce the sweet, fresh meal that makes cornbread a delectable staple.

There are numerous recipes for cornbread – such as the hoecake of Civil War times, when it was baked on hoes held above an open flame or on a bayonet held before the bivouac fires of camping soldiers.There are also muffins, oven bread baked in a heavy iron skillet, cornpone, Johnny Cake, crackling bread, spoon bread and hush puppies.

Each recipe has its own place on the table, each is an accompaniment for a particular dish. Imagine eating turnip greens or collards without a piece or two of hot buttered cornbread, or spooning up a bowl of vegetable soup without a cornbread muffin or two.

There are recipes in plenty. Do try a few.

OVEN CORNBREAD

1 cup flour

1 cup cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 cup milk

1/4 cup melted butter or shortening

Sift together flour, meal, salt and baking powder. Stir in milk, quantity neededd may vary a little, batter should be on the thin side, then the egg, well beaten. Beat batter briskly a couple of minutes, stir in melted butter, turn into a heated heavy iron skillet, well greased, and bake in a moderate (350-375) oven for about 30 minutes. Buttermilk may be used; if so, use a fraction over 1/2 teaspoon of soda instead of baking powder and bake slowly.

CORNMEAL MUFFINS

1-1/4 cups flour

3/4 cups cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 cup milk

2 eggs

1/4 cup melted butter

Mix as for cornbread. Bake in well-greased muffin pans in a hot oven about 25 minutes.

CUSTARD JOHNNY CAKE

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup sweet milk

2 eggs

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup cornmeal

1/2 cup flour

Mix and sift together cornmeal, flour, soda, salt and sugar. Beat in the buttermilk, then stir in well-beaten eggs. Add the sweet milk last, blending quickly. Pour into a greased rectangular pan and bake in a hot oven about 35 minutes. Serve immediately, cutting in squares at the table. The custard will rise to the top in baking.

CRACKLING BREAD

Crackling bread does not refer to the shortenin’ bread against which our stomachs have been turned by amateur baritones bellowing “Mama’s little baby loves -” It is however tied up definitely with hog killing season for cracklings are the crisp, nutty residue left from making homemade lard. The fat is cut into small squares for trying out and each square is apotheosized into a brown crinkled kernel that turns cornbread in the autumn into a delicacy unobtainable in high places.

2 cups water ground cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup skimmed milk

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup cracklings

Mix and sift dry ingredients. Stir in milk and water and beat until smooth. Drop in egg and beat again. Stir in cracklings and bake in a lightly greased iron skillet about 30 minutes in a hot oven, about 400 degrees. If the cracklings are no larger than a pea, stir them in whole. Otherwise, break up the larger pieces, but there is no point in having cracklings and then disguising them.

And for all these recipes, do try to use cornmeal from Kenan’s Mill.